Retail food inflation crossing 10 per cent, the first time in nearly six years, isn’t good news for an economy already mired in a deep slowdown. The suddenness of the increase (from under 3 per cent in August to 10 per cent-plus in November) and the fact that the Narendra Modi government’s tenure has been marked by low consumer food prices (an average rise of hardly 3.3 per cent year-on-year during its first term from June 2014 to May 2019) makes it all the more unsettling. That “core” consumer inflation — which excludes price increases in the more “volatile” food and energy components — is still only 3.5 per cent cannot be any consolation. Food prices strongly shape the inflation expectations of Indian households and, in turn, their spending behaviour. Given that the monetary policy’s overarching concern is price stability, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), for one, has to pay as much attention to inflation expectations as actual inflation. Food inflation, in other words, cannot be dismissed as “non-core”.
The right question to ask, then, is whether this inflation, which has been sudden and sharp, is transient. In the case of onions and other vegetables, that could well be the case. This year’s unusual combination of delayed onset of the southwest monsoon (resulting in reduced/late kharif sowings) and prolonged unseasonal rains in October-November (damaging the standing crop at the harvesting stage) has caused significant supply disruptions. The impact of it has been felt most in vegetables, which have registered the highest inflation of almost 36 per cent for November. But since the extended rainfall has also helped fill up reservoirs and substantially recharge groundwater aquifers, one can expect a production rebound in the current rabi crop due for harvesting from March-end. However, there’s reason to believe that the inflation apparent or likely in pulses, milk (Amul and Mother Dairy have just raised prices) and even sugar is not one-off. Most agri-commodities have gone through a protracted bear phase, with consumer food inflation during the period between September 2016 and August 2019 not only averaging a mere 1.4 per cent, but consistently trailing overall retail inflation. At some point, prices have to play catch-up and it’s quite possible that’s beginning to happen.
If food prices are simply correcting from lows, neither the government nor the RBI should do much to stop that. Rather than resorting to export bans, subsidised imports or stockholding restrictions — these will only discourage investments in modern warehousing, cold storage, processing and farm extension support — the focus of policymakers should be on removing structural impediments to the production and free movement of agri-produce. The return of food inflation may not allow RBI to further slash interest rates now, but it certainly opens up room for much-delayed reforms in agriculture. Farmers will not mind the rationalisation of subsidies when prices are looking up.
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